I didn’t know who Al Koeppe was the first time he called. I had just started as editor of NJBIZ in 2013 and was trying to get my bearings in the world of New Jersey business after two decades of being immersed in the state’s sports scene.I had just started as editor of NJBIZ in 2013 and was trying to get my bearings in the world of New Jersey business after two decades of being immersed in the state’s sports scene.
He wasn’t about to let me know who he was, who he knew and what he had accomplished in a career of influence and success in the state few could match. Anyone who knew him knows that wasn’t his way.
So, as I listened to him compliment me on one of our recent editions, I quickly did a Google search to figure out who was on the other end of the phone. When I found his resume, I was stunned. Why was a man of this stature reaching out to me?
“I just want to support the home team,” he said.
That was the essence of Al Koeppe.
New Jersey didn’t just lose one of its premier business leaders when Koeppe passed Tuesday at 70. Al was a true gentlemen, one who led with grace and dignity. Someone who made everyone else in the room feel as if they were the most important person there.
New Jersey lost its biggest cheerleader.
Our phone call was the first of many conversations the past three years, by phone, email and in person.
We didn’t talk about how he was the head of both New Jersey Bell and Public Service Electric & Gas. We didn’t talk about how he was the former chair of the state chamber of commerce or that he sat on some of the state’s most powerful boards. We talked about others. We talk about what people and what organizations were making a difference. It always was about others. It always was about the good of New Jersey.
Al always was eager to share his behind-the-scenes insights of how the state worked. He would talk about how true leaders were hard to find, but identified those he felt fit the bill and showed how their influence impacted the companies they ran.
Al greatly admired the work the Ralphs (Izzo and LaRossa) were doing at one of his previous stops, PSE&G. He thought the world of Larry Downes, the chairman and CEO of New Jersey Resources, saying he was one of the rare people who led by example and never wished for adulation.
Al was a champion for women in the workplace long before others. He would gush when talking about Caren Franzini and her impact at the Economic Development Authority, and couldn’t say enough good things about her successor, Michele Brown. He felt the state needed to do more to improve gender balance in the board room and regretted that he hadn’t done more.
Al also loved Newark. He was proud to be a graduate of Rutgers-Newark and he helped found the Newark Alliance in 1999, a nonprofit aimed at improving all aspects of the city. He spoke passionately about the good work of mayors Cory Booker and Ras Baraka and the efforts of the past and present leaders of two of the city’s biggest companies, Prudential Financial and Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey.
Al was an invaluable resource to NJBIZ. He shared insights into the negotiations with Mercedes when the company decided to leave the state. He just wanted to make sure NJBIZ was telling it right. And when we got it wrong, such as the award that would bring the Philadelphia 76ers’ practice facility and corporate office to the state (an agreement that now appears to be a stroke of genius), he called to explain. He then took the blame, saying the EDA that he chaired didn’t do a good enough job explaining the workings of the agreement to the media.
That was classic Al Koeppe. Others before himself. When we would talk about potential additions to our annual Power 100 list, he never mentioned himself. And he never mentioned the year we did not have him on the list. When he heard NJBIZ was honoring Franzini with a lifetime achievement award, he called, beaming with pride. I hung up the phone thinking, “Why aren’t we honoring Al, too?”
Our conversations weren’t always about business. In fact, they never started there. Al always asked about my family. And he loved talking about his. His wife, Anne, was his true love. And he had such pride when talking about the success of his two grown children, and such passion when talking about his five grandkids, some of which were on the other coast. He loved his trips to California and hated the fact they had to be so short. He was finally going to do something about it.
The last time we talked was earlier in the fall. He called to tell me he was going to resign from his post as chair of the EDA in December. It was time to make spending time with his grandkids his full-time job, he said.
I wished him well and thanked him for giving NJBIZ one last news tip. (We were making plans to honor his retirement in our year-end Interview Issue). He laughed. He never wanted to be the story. He only had one goal: To support the home team.
New Jersey has never had a bigger fan.